In conversation with Neil Bartlett, Director

Edited from an interview with Neil Bartlett on Today with Pat Kenny, RTE Radio 1.

How was your interest in Oscar Wilde sparked?

I grew up in a small town in the south of England and then in the late ‘80s I went to college in Oxford. The rooms that I was given to live in for the first year were over the Junior Common Room. Tucked away at the back of the college it was actually, in an earlier life, where Oscar Wilde lived.

When I went down to breakfast every morning I would always be late. I would always be running because they stopped serving breakfast on the dot of half past nine. To get down the staircase I would grab the post on the corner of the stair to swing down and get my breakfast. Every morning for that whole first year of college, every time I did it, I would think – so his hand was there. Wilde’s hand. Because, of course, things don’t change much in Oxford, so literally I would look at my left hand every morning as I grabbed the post and I could visualize it… so Oscar Wilde’s hand did that every morning. I bet he was late for breakfast too.

And so I had a very personal connection with him as a man. He wasn’t just somebody who wrote the line about the handbag – he was a very vivid presence in my life as a young man. I did a lot of work on his books while I was at college and then after I left college I wrote a book about him – he’s loitered in my life ever since. This is the second time I’ve been at the Abbey doing Wilde – I directed and Abbey production of An Ideal Husband here two years ago now. The National Theatre in London commissioned me to write a piece about him to celebrate the centenary of his death in 2000… He and I have crossed paths many times.

Whenever you say you’re going to do The Picture of Dorian Gray people have two questions. One is, so what does he look like, who have you got playing Dorian? And the other is, well, how do you do the picture?

My Dorian is played by a young man called Tom Canton whose dad is from Dublin but who grew up in England and it’s actually Tom’s first job. It’s the very first time he’s been on the professional stage. He’s from RADA which is one of the acting academies in London. As you can imagine, I hunted high and low for my Dorian and Tom was the young man that I chose. This is no small feat as a debut – to walk on stage in this role – on the stage in particular of Ireland’s National Theatre and I have to say he’s doing splendidly.

Now, I’m not going to tell you how we’ll do the picture. The only thing I’ll say is I’ve put many novels on stage in the course of my work. With Wilde, there’s a very clear reason – why do people come to see Oscar Wilde in the theatre especially, it must be said, in Dublin? Because his words are better than anybody else’s, that’s what we go to Wilde for. We think we’re there because there will be nice costumes or some potted plants in the corner… But what we really go for are those unbeatable sentences that linger even a hundred years later.

And so my solution to the staging of the picture is to use Wilde’s words. He does a brilliant trick in the novel; you think he’s telling you exactly what it looks like. In fact, he plants the seeds of suggestion in your brain but all of the horrors of the picture are in your own imagination. He never actually says what it looks like and I’m trying to use that suggestiveness of his extraordinary prose in the mouth of my company to create the picture.

To listen to the full interview with Pat Kenny click here

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